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The P&PDL Picture of the Week



Pokeweed or Pokeberry, Phytolacca americana

Steve Mayer, Extension Educator, Marion County

(Click on smaller image to view larger image.)

The photos were taken by Steve Mayer on July 28, 2001, in Indianapolis. Ripe berries were not found yet at this time.
Phytolacca americana, Pokeweed or Pokeberry Flower of Phytolacca americana Unripened berries of Phytolacca americana
Phytolacca americana
Pokeweed or Pokeberry
Flower of Phytolacca americana Unripened berries of Phytolacca americana

This past week someone brought a plant into the office that caused 2 people to have a dermatitis reaction similar to poison ivy. The plant was:

Pokeweed or Pokeberry
Phytolacca americana
Family: Phytolaccaceae

I did a search at BoDD (Botanical Dermatology Database). BoDD is an electronic re-incarnation of Botanical Dermatology by J. Mitchell & A. Rook (Greengrass, Vancouver, 1979). It may eventually appear in printed form as Mitchell & Rook's Botanical Dermatology, 2nd Ed. (Richard J. Schmidt, Editor).

It confirmed of Phytolacca decandra (syn. Phytolacca americana), Pokeberry, Pokeweed, that at least some people do have a reaction to this plant: "The green plant and root often produce inflammation of the skin (communication to White 1887, Lloyd 1887 cited by White 1887). An ointment made from the plant excites a sense of heat and smarting; it is stimulating when applied to the skin, frequently producing an eschar (Bigelow 1817, cited by White 1887). The juice or a strong decoction of the root applied to the skin when tender or abraded, causes smarting or a burning pain (Dispensatory 1884). The action of the fresh plant on workmen in a laboratory was similar to that of Podophyllum causing serious inflammation of the eyelids (Lloyd 1887 cited by White 1887)."

For another photo and more information from the Animal Disease Diagnostic Lab at Purdue, go to:

Indiana Toxic Plants Indices: 40. COMMON POKEWEED, POKEBERRY, POKEROOT, INKBERRY, POKE

Here it describes another reason to avoid contacting this plant, "the mutagenic and teratogenic properties of pokeweed, that is the ability to induce mutations (and possibly cancer) and birth defects. For humans, even handling the plant is considered dangerous, so it would seem wise to not only prevent human contact with the plant, but animal contact as well. Despite this, the plant is eaten as a spring vegetable in the southern U.S. after cooking it first in several changes of water. Consumption of the plant is not advised."

This is echoed in the book, Common Poisonous Plants and Mushrooms of North America. They state: "The mitogen can be absorbed through cuts and skin abrasions, as well as through ingesting the plant. Pokeweed should not be handled except with gloves."

More photos and information:

Poinsonous Plants of North Carolina: Phytolacca americana, P. rigida
Wisconsin State Herbarium: Family Phytolaccaceae


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Last updated: 30 July 2001/tlm.
The Plant & Pest Diagnostic Laboratory at Purdue University.